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Pakistan: Musharraf Seeks Strategic Ties With Moscow

  • Ron Synovitz

President Pervez Musharraf arrived in Moscow today on the first official visit to Russia in three decades by a head of state from Pakistan. RFE/RL spoke with experts on Russia and South Asia who say Musharraf is trying to build a better bond with the Kremlin at a time when Pakistan's strategic partnerships appear to be under pressure.

Prague, 4 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf arrived in Moscow today for a three-day visit aimed at strengthening strategic and economic relations. It is the first official visit to the Kremlin by a Pakistani leader in more than three decades. Relations between the two countries have been overshadowed since the late 1970s by historic divisions on Afghanistan.

Analysts in Europe and South Asia are watching developments for signs of shifting strategic partnerships for Pakistan and its nuclear rival in the region, India.

Among those experts is Christopher Langton, the head of defense analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "It is an unusual visit. [President Vladimir] Putin and Russia, of course, are closer to India. So to have Pakistan's president coming to Moscow is of great interest," Langton said.

Indeed, relations between Moscow and Islamabad have been uneasy since Afghanistan was occupied by Soviet forces in 1979. During the 10-year Soviet occupation, Pakistan became a staging area for U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedin fighters.

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, support from Pakistan's ISI intelligence service also helped the Taliban rise to power during the mid-1990s. Musharraf, however, aligned his country with the United States in the war against terrorism after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Recent attempts by Islamabad to improve ties with Russia have also been soured by the Kremlin's weapons deals with India.

But there are increasing signs of tension in Islamabad's relations with Washington. Akram Gizabi, an expert for "Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst," -- a British journal by the same group that publishes "Jane's Defense Weekly" -- reported this week that the ISI is now actively helping remnants of the Taliban regroup within Pakistan's western tribal regions for cross-border attacks into southern and southeastern Afghanistan.

Langton said Gizabi's assessment highlights concerns in Washington about a possible resurgence of Taliban supporters. He said the recent election of pro-Taliban Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, both of which border Afghanistan, has further dampened Islamabad's relations with the United States.

At the same time, Langton noted that Washington and others have been improving their diplomatic, strategic, and economic ties with India. "The strategic partnerships, both toward India and Pakistan, have shifted to some degree. India is in business now with the United States on a number of projects and [with] Israel on the Arrow air-defense missile system. And [India has also improved ties with] Iran, commercially in particular. Pakistan, and Musharraf in particular, need every friend they can get at this minute, because the political situation inside Pakistan has changed. The MMA party, which is a pro-Taliban party in control now of the two western provinces of the country on the Afghan border, makes life very difficult internally for Musharraf," Langton said.

As a result, Langton said the timing of Musharraf's Moscow trip is critical. "[Musharraf] will be looking outside to establish new relationships to stabilize the country's future both commercially and militarily. And this, again, is very much part of his visit to Moscow," Langton said.

Langton noted that Musharraf's visit comes at the initiative of Putin, who extended the invitation last summer. Thus, Langton said he also sees the visit in terms of a Kremlin bid to enhance Russia's role in South Asia while other strategic partnerships are shifting. "We could look at the background on what Putin is doing in Central, South, and East Asia vis-a-vis diplomacy and see that he is trying to establish some kind of leadership over diplomatic issues in that region, which would then answer the question as to why Musharraf would come to Moscow against that background," Langton said.

Junaid Ahsan, a researcher at the Pakistan Institute for International Affairs in Karachi, told RFE/RL that improved ties between the United States and India in recent months have caused the Kremlin to reexamine its relations with Islamabad. "India's relationship with Russia is not going very [well], because Russia doesn't [like the fact] that India has [recently developed a] very strategic and in-depth relationship with the United States," Ahsan said.

And Ahsan said the warmer relationship between India and the United States has left Musharraf desperate to expand his strategic ties with other countries. "The timing of this visit is very critical because every other country -- mostly in Europe and specifically the United States -- is now putting pressure on Pakistan. So there are possibilities that there will be some new strategic steps in [Musharraf's Kremlin] visit. The international community must understand that [any shift in Pakistan's ties with Russia] is also in relation with China," Ahsan said.

The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad said Musharraf and Putin plan to meet tomorrow to discuss agreements on economic and defense cooperation. The ministry said the two leaders also will discuss Iraq and continuing volatility in Afghanistan.

The ministry said that Musharraf will seek Moscow's support for negotiations with India over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. India has controlled much of the Muslim-majority region as a result of the three wars it has fought with Pakistan since 1947.

With little for New Delhi to gain through such negotiations, India has opposed the idea of any talks on redrawing the current Line of Control in Kashmir, the de facto border in place since the 1971 war that saw East Pakistan break away from Islamabad to become Bangladesh.

But officials in Islamabad this week said they think Putin can play an important role in arranging peace talks that could bring an end to the low-intensity skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani troops that have continued across the Line of Control in Kashmir for the last 18 years.

Ahsan explained Islamabad's expectations: "After this visit, there will be some new news and some new strategic alliances -- maybe hidden or maybe very open -- on the regional and bilateral issues. And obviously they'll be discussing Afghanistan in particular, because Pakistan and Russia were former enemies on that front. But now the situation has changed."

Still, relations between Moscow and New Delhi are not at an impasse. Just last month, Russia signed an agreement with India for joint development of an advanced fighter jet, for joint production of the Brahmos cruise missile, and for sales of submarines.